Friday, April 28, 2017
Wednesday, April 26, 2017
Monday, April 24, 2017
|photo credit: Louise Stockfeld|
At the recent launch party for his new novel The Venetian Game, Philip Gwynne Jones acknowledged that anyone thinking of setting a thriller in Venice immediately encounters a formidable, if not insurmountable challenge in the corpus of Donna Leon. With Inspector Brunetti on the scene, Venice is hardly in need of another Italian detective. And while that traditional protagonist of the genre, the private eye, could plausibly be imagined to make a living in the larger city of Mestre, Philip noted that there wasn't yet much of an international market for books set in Mestre.
Philip, whom I first met when we both worked as readers of Marx's Das Kapital during the run of the last Venice Biennale, came up with what I think is a brilliant solution--and no small part of the pleasure I had in reading his first novel stemmed from its inspired premise. Nathan Sutherland, the first person narrator of The Venetian Game, serves as England's Honorary Consul in Venice.
It's a pretty impressive title, but the post has lost a good deal of its luster since the grand old days of Joseph Smith, great patron of Canaletto (among many others), and one of his era's real movers and shakers. The "Honorary" signals that the position is unpaid, and Sutherland carries out its duties from his modest apartment on the Calle dei Assassini, between Campo Manin and Campo Sant'Angelo, aiding English tourists who have lost their passports, or are looking for a lunch recommendation. To pay his bills he works as a translator-- not of Dante, nor even Goldoni, but of a lawn mower manual when we first meet him.
|Philip Gwynne Jones reads from his new novel at its launch party in Venice|
Sutherland is a distinctly engaging narrator, his knowledge of Venice and of culture carried lightly and leavened by a dry wit, a gift for observation, and a modesty that threatens to topple at times into self doubt. His Watson, as it were, is a cantankerous cat that haunts his home office like a malevolent familiar, and is perfectly described in a way that both cat lovers and cat haters will find apt and gratifying.
Sutherland is also perfectly positioned in the social milieu of Venice for maximum dramatic and comic effect. No less than the classic private eye of someone like Raymond Chandler, he occupies a liminal place, both insider and outsider at the same time. As the traditional private dick operates at the boundaries of the law, his authority always a little dubious and extending no further than what he's able to pull off or assert in any given situation, so does Sutherland. For all the diligence with which he pursues his consular duties, it's still a bit of a confidence game. Lacking a paid position, as he also lacks a detective's badge, Sutherland must improvise a certain authority for himself in increasingly complex and perilous contexts; trying to inspire a certain confidence or respect in the minds of other even as he struggles with it in his own.
Most important, though, for this first novel is that Philip Gwynne Jones does an excellent job of vividly and astutely conjuring Venice. While the charms of the narrator and the skills of the author may assure an audience for the second Nathan Sutherland novel--due out a year from now--no small number of readers will pick up this first one because of its setting. And they won't be disappointed.
Sutherland's official duties and his own personal relationships and amusements take him all over Venice, and the Venice that the author delivers is the living, breathing local Venice which persists like a secret society amid the teeming, and all-too-often trashy, mass tourist Venice. Those who have themselves lived in Venice will recognize with pleasure the city Sutherland inhabits; those who haven't, will get a strong sense of what it's like to do so as a resident.
But as well as Sutherland knows his way around the city, this is not Brunetti's Venice, and it's Nathan's distinctive vantage point as both a knowledgeable and sometimes perplexed non-native that opens up interesting perspectives on, and insights into, the city. That makes up, in fact, much of his appeal.
The plot of the novel revolves around stolen art and there's no lack of tension and drama. (In a particularly inspired scene, Sutherland is nearly drowned not in one of Venice's famous canals but in one of its paved streets during acqua alta.) But as much as it may involve various unsavory characters up to no good, this is a book about friendship. It's a book with its own distinctive voice and perspective, but there's also something of the spirit of the classic Venice film Bread and Tulips (Pane e Tulipani) in it. As was true in that film, the appealing protagonist of A Venetian Game finally comes to establish himself in the city not through his position as consul, nor even his crime-solving, but through his bonds of affection--and the testing of those bonds--with an assorted cast of local characters.
The Venetian Game is published in the UK by Little Brown in both a paper and an e-book edition. An Italian translation is forthcoming. The book can also be found in various bookstores in Venice; most reliably in Libreria Studium, a short distance from the basilica of San Marco. It is not yet available for direct sale in the US.
Thursday, April 20, 2017
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Saturday, April 15, 2017
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
Saturday, April 8, 2017
Monday, April 3, 2017
Friday, March 31, 2017
Wednesday, March 29, 2017
The 10th Incroci di Civiltà literary festival kicked off tonight with a spirited discussion about the purposes of literature--and whether there's anything wrong with telling a "good story"--among the authors Michael Chabon, Vikram Seth and Abraham B. Yehosua. These three appeared at the Goldoni Theater as last-minute fill-ins for Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk, who was called away from his scheduled appearance here by private matters in his native country of Turkey.
Chabon, Seth, and Yehoshua will each appear separately over the next three days of the festival in his previously scheduled spot, along with the festival's usual impressive array of writers from around the world. A full schedule is available here: http://www.unive.it/pag/11127/. Tickets are free, but advance reservations are required, and most of this year's events are fully booked--although if you show up at the event site 15 minutes before its scheduled start, places do sometimes become available because of cancellations.
Saturday, March 25, 2017
|A screen can prove irresistible even while being rowed across the Grand Canal...|
I'm aware that some people--maybe even the majority--visit blogs like this one because it's a chance to catch up on a place they'd like to be but aren't. It's certainly one of the things that led me to blogs on Venice before we actually lived here. And the thought of this gives me pause when I find myself reading a book or an e-book on a vaporetto as it passes by, say, the Doges' Palace and Piazza San Marco and Santa Maria della Salute and all the other sights I myself once longed to behold in person when I was in fact far away from them. I know that we get used to any- and everything. But should we?
Consider the image above. Let's assume the person standing in the center of the Santa Sophia traghetto in the slightly hunched screen-focused posture that defines our times is in the midst of her commute to or from work, in which the short passage across the Grand Canal is a link. Commuters everywhere take refuge in their screens, just as they previously took refuge in the printed page of newspapers, magazines, or books. And yet to spend the mere 30 seconds or so it takes to be rowed across one of the world's most famous and picturesque waterways/avenues focused on a small screen seems like a bad idea to me.
Perhaps in this case it was some pressing matter that couldn't be delayed even half a minute. Okay. But in my own case I marvel at how the definition of "pressing" and "imperative" has expanded when it comes to screens--and I don't even have a smart phone.
And I wonder about how dramatically the constant temptation of screens, which lure us with the promise of information in "real time" or "as it happens"--something newspapers could never do--have destroyed our sense of place.
"How do you like your new apartment?" I'm asked, and though I can answer in any number of ways I'm not sure I can feel the experience of this very particular place as I once could. I trust, or hope, that I just need more time in it and that it will come.
But at the risk of stating the obvious, how different it feels to live in Venice now than it did 25 years ago. Not just because of the way Venice has changed but because of the way technology has changed our sense of place. Or maybe it's only mine.
25 years ago Venice was much more distant from the life I'd left behind in the US. And it was a much less clamorous place--not objectively, acoustically, but, well, inside my own head.
I'm afraid this threatens to turn into a long dull post--Paul Valéry, WD Howells, the French theorist Paul Virilio,* and a host of others are hovering allusively around its yet unwritten edges, and I think it best to keep them out. But isn't it odd that we pay so much to travel to distant places and then spend much of our time worrying about wi-fi access to keep us in touch with the place we've just left--and a thousand other places besides?
"To be everywhere is to be nowhere," Seneca warned in a line that took on new meaning with the coming of the internet. And to be everywhere at once never seemed especially satisfying even for the Almighty Himself; that Great Being defined by His ubiquity who, like the earliest recorded adapter of Facebook, seemed in frequent if not constant need of attention, praise and adoration.
|...or on the outside seats at the back of a vaporetto|
Note: * "In the opening section of The Lost Dimension [published in France way back in 1984], Virilio sets up his polemic about the 'disappearance' and 'loss' of architectonic dimension. The screen [film, tv or early computer] is an 'interface' which relies on a 'visibility without any face-to-face encounter, in which the vis-a-vis of the ancient streets disappears and is erased.' The polis, agora and forum have been replaced by the screen. ... Virilio writes: 'With the interfacing of computer terminals and video monitors, distinctions of here and there no longer mean anything.'"
--From a 2004 essay on Virilio by Anne Friedberg
Thursday, March 23, 2017
Sunday, March 19, 2017
|The courtyard of ex-Ospedale G.B. Giustinian, currently a health care facility|
In a much-derided and parodied tweet during the last week of Carnevale, Venice's non-resident Mayor Luigi Brugnaro presented an image of a masked young woman at a private ball as conclusive proof that, contrary to what those dismayed by the steady exodus of Venetians from the historic city have suggested, Venice is a thriving city.
Given that the ball was one of those created by private commercial interests for predominantly out-of-town ticket buyers and staffed by such young women in masks, using this as an illustration of Venice's communal vigor was akin to the mayor of Anaheim, California posting an image of a young woman in a Minnie Mouse costume on Disney's "Main Street USA" attraction as evidence that the city of Anaheim had never been a more vibrant, productive place for its residents.
In fact, living Venice--what's left of it--often goes on unnoticed by visitors. It's the ever-shrinking number of stores where you can buy basic unglamorous necessities (like an ironing board); the storefront children's library near San Zaccaria (which Brugnaro wants to close); and the large old health care facilities: their interiors a combination of the centuries-old ecclesiastical and the modern institutional--the latter usually appearing much more run-down than the former.
Always in danger of being closed in whole or in part--a few years back Venice's residents rebuffed the region's attempt to shut down their already half-staffed Ospedale Civile near the church of SS Giovanni e Paolo; now, in a shamelessly overt bit of symbolism, it's the hospital's maternity department that's been targeted for the ax--these large old institutions have the feel of ghost ships: their skeletal staffs working hard to serve a populace that the mainland-based authorities have already seemed to consign to oblivion.
Yet these are the places where the city's population lives--or tries to. Where it goes when it's ill, when it's dying, or when it's preparing to deliver the next (last?) generation of Venetian residents actually born in the lagoon.
I thought of this last week while waiting in the long, windowed hallway of the ex-Ospedale G.B. Giustinian for my son to come out of his appointment. I looked outside at the courtyard that you can see pictured above, and enjoyed the sun and the scene. Until after a time the question arose that now always arises here for any resident looking upon some valued (and valuable) piece of their city's property: How long until this, too, becomes a hotel?
You see, as Salvatore Settis explains in Chapter VII of his important book If Venice Dies, every public heritage site in Italy has been officially labeled with a price as part of a legislative decree of 2010 (signed into law by the ever-enterprising Silvio Berlusconi) that turned over ownership of federal properties to individual city governments. That is, properties once held in trust and manged by the Italian government for the sake all Italian citizens, to whom it belonged, have now been gifted to cash-strapped local governments with the explicit encouragement for them to sell them off, or even to give them away, to private interests and investors. Indeed, as Settis notes, so strong is the push for local governments to liquidate public property belonging to their citizens that "another law requires local governments to furnish a yearly report on their 'real estate disposals' alongside their budgets."*
(Hence you end up with absurd situations like the one that played out here in Venice in regard to the island of Poveglia, in which Venetians/Italians joined forces to try to buy a property that literally, according to the Italian constitution, already belonged to them.)
So, looking out upon the Giustinian cloister pictured above, one finds oneself speculating on the exact shape the hotel swimming pool will take once the old well head has been moved to a spot better suited to the changed use of the property.
This is what Venetians are up against. A government quite literally occupied by private business interests, an array of recent laws (many of them, Settis argues, unconstitutional), and an economic system in which the public interest simply does not figure at all. Except, that is, insofar as the public continues to exist at all, as an impediment to profit margins and rapacious speculation: red figures on the wrong side of the balance sheet, ripe for erasure.
But it's not only what Venetians are up against. Venice serves as Settis's canary in the coal mine; in this case a rare bird, indeed, one of the world's most celebrated, whose life is threatened by the same Neoliberal forces running amok elsewhere; threatened by what the philosopher Harry Frankfurt calls "wantons." As Samuel Scheffler explains in his lecture The Afterlife (the basis for his book Death and the Afterlife, alluded to by Settis), "A wanton... is an agent who is not a person because his actions simply 'reflect the economy of his first-order desires,' and because he is indifferent to 'the enterprise of evaluating' those desires."
Actually, the wantons in power are not merely indifferent to "the enterprise of evaluating" those desires (the capacity for which evaluation distinguishes humans from animals) but blatantly hostile to it. Whether it's Brugnaro in Venice or Trump (Bannon) in America or Putin in Russia, wantons are forever denigrating "so-called" experts and their studies, contemptuous of science and any kind of rational, considered assessment. They sell themselves as "men of action," promising the most stupendous results--if only we give them absolute power.
Fortunately, this is not a deal everyone is willing to make. And in Venice, as is true elsewhere, there's a determined resistance.
* Of course this kind of thing is not peculiar to Italy; it's a primary aim of the Neoliberal doctrine that holds sway in much of the world. Americans will recognize it, for example, behind the drive by Republicans to turn over tens of millions of acres of National Park lands to state governments.
Wednesday, March 15, 2017
Sunday, March 12, 2017
|Flavio Franceschet, in his customary straw hat, at a vendemmia lunch on San Michele in September 2013|
Venice's rate of depopulation has gotten to the point that it's no exaggeration to say that the city really can't afford to lose a single resident, either through relocation or death. But the loss of certain residents such as Flavio Franceschet, who died at the beginning of last week and was laid to rest yesterday on the cemetery island of San Michele, tears a particularly large hole in the social and cultural fabric of the living city.
Trained as an architect, Flavio was a popular and influential teacher at la Scuola Media Statale Pier Fortunaro Calvi. But this was just one important role among the many he played in the life of the city. He was also instrumental, for example, in the transformation of a large unused greenhouse at the edge of the public gardens (originally constructed in 1894 as a tepidarium) into La Serra dei Giardini, a cultural and educational center whose exhibitions, programs, and nursery make it a valuable resource for both residents and visitors, and whose pleasant grounds and cafe offer an appealing respite from the stones of Venice.
|Mourners fill the cloister of San Michele yesterday|
He was also the founder and president of Laguna nel bicchiere, a non-profit association dedicated to the re-invigoration and cultivation of forgotten vineyards around the lagoon: such as the one within the old cloister walls of the cemetery island of San Michele. This is where I first met Flavio, during one unforgettable vendemmia (grape harvest) I wrote more than one post about in September of 2013.
A lot could be written about Laguna nel bicchiere, which at one and the same time was both all about the wine and about so much more than the wine. As was the case in every association or program or event that Flavio created or was involved in, there was both a profound commitment to tradition, to being deeply grounded in the oftentimes ancient culture of the thing, along with an equally profound commitment to the creation of something new and vibrant and now. In Laguna nel bicchiere the past was retrieved as something that could become a vital part of both the present and a future. For all his knowledge of the past, I never detected anything nostalgic about Flavio. He always seemed quite alive in the present, where he was busy cultivating not just grapes, olives, and gardens, but a well-grounded sense of community that seemed to offer the last best hope for a living future in Venice and its lagoon.
|A handout from yesterday's service|
I noticed this broader project of cultivation in everything he did; it informed the seasonal feste he created in Campo Bragora, as well as the educational program around the cultivation of the lagoon's olive groves that Laguna nel bicchiere developed along with Slow Food Venezia. A program which brought the city's school children to olive groves on the islands of San Servolo and Sant' Elena, and involved them in the year-long process that would eventually result in olive oil, whose sales proceeds would be donated to fund gardens in Africa.
In fact, Flavio had been at my son's elementary school last Monday to talk to students about the cultivation of olives, and was scheduled to meet them two days later in the olive grove of San Servolo.
But on Tuesday he suddenly fell and ill died in the offices of the Comune, where he'd gone to see about extending the agreement with the city whereby the vineyard and old cantina on San Michele would continue to be cultivated by Laguna nel bicciere for educational and community purposes. Which, alas, is not assured in a city where the interests of private outside developers usually trump those of resident citizens. Indeed, the predatory, commercially-minded atmosphere of City Hall was why some people at the funeral yesterday referred, not entirely in jest, to Flavio as a martyr on behalf of Venice's residents and culture.
But the mood was mostly celebratory yesterday, with live music and song, and speeches, and even some juggling. The turnout, not surprisingly, was large. So large, in fact, that before the 11 am start time ACTV (which runs the vaporetti) had to run a Corsa Bis--a special Linea-1-style vaporetto service from Fondamenta Nove to San Michele--just for the mourners. Just as it does for special events such as the Feste della Salute or Redentore, or a Venezia Lega Pro soccer game.
|The cloister of San Michele, yesterday|
One of Flavio's two adult sons recalled that his father used to tell him when he was a child that a setback or difficulty or source of frustration was like a gioco, a game, which it was our challenge to figure out. Life could also be like a battle, but the point was to keep finding a way forward, attentive to and alive in the world around us, with good cheer, and openness, and the pleasure that comes with working with others.
Laguna nel bicchiere, along with other projects Flavio created, will continue without him. Though it won't be easy, as Flavio was--as many people remarked yesterday--un personaggio. What in English might be called a "character;" and so much himself, and singular, and knowledgeable, and insightful, and amiably persuasive, as to be irreplaceable. Among the things I admired most about Flavio was that he somehow managed to be a commanding presence without being in any way domineering. He wasn't showy or overbearing, dictatorial or egocentric. He was a reassuring and thoughtful presence, spirited, creative, and effortlessly committed, in whose company good things became possible. In the last couple of years I kept missing Laguna nel bicchiere activities I'd intended to go to, but I was always happy to run into Flavio in the street around town. The mere sight of him, a few words, would remind me of living Venice, and of those like him who willingly, fervently, bear so much of the burden of keeping it alive, and of imagining--and advocating for--its future. Yesterday at San Michele, in a celebration of his life, there was a widespread commitment to pick up where he left off.
A complete list of my blog posts on Laguna nel bicchiere and other activities created by Flavio gives a hint of his importance to the life of the city:
Laguna nel bicchiere:
Community festivals in Campo Bragora:
|An empty bottle of Laguna nel bicchiere's "Barefoot Archangels" wine with memorial candles in the cantina of San Michele, yesterday|
Wednesday, March 8, 2017
Monday, March 6, 2017
The above image was taken with a short exposure time--short enough to capture the momentary two-color effect of the boat passing underneath the bridge. The below was taken with a long exposure time.
Friday, March 3, 2017
This series of three large wall freschi in the single room of a private residence by the the Venetian painter Pietro Antonio Novelli (1729-1804) suggests the Carnevale just concluded and the warmer weather to come.
Tuesday, February 28, 2017
Although the Twelve Marie are most famously carried on the shoulders of young men at the beginning of Carnevale, I realized this year that they actually seem to spend even more time being rowed up and down the Grand Canal on some pretty chilly and damp days. Today, on the last day of Carnevale, after the young women selected as the Maria dell'Anno and Maria dei Veneziani (o Gazzettino) were officially presented in Campo San Giacomo dell'Orio (a venerable "tradition" which I suspect goes back all of about 3 years), they were rowed with other costumed members of the nobility--including even the Doge himself, as you'll see below--to Piazza San Marco for closing ceremonies. All of them the very images of fortitude through what seems for them to be an especially event-packed Carnevale season.
Saturday, February 25, 2017
|A pair of fancy dress revelers in Caffe Florian|
Before tonight's fancy dress balls some revelers gather at Caffè Florian, where the best-dressed of them are seated near the windows and never fail to draw crowds (myself among them)--our camera lenses, if not actual noses, pressed against the glass.
But though the finery on display among Florian's interior makes for some of the most picturesque scenes of Carnevale, it's hardly representative of the actual experience of Carnevale in Venice. Indeed, the center of the "action" tonight--and most nights of Carnevale, which, to be honest, can't end soon enough for most residents--is not at Piazza San Marco, but around the Rialto Market area.
There are no less than three different musical stages jammed into this small area; two of them quite literally side-by-side beneath the two pescheria structures.* As I type these words the ceaseless muddy beat of at least one of these stages fills the room in which I sit, easily penetrating the sound-proofing of the doubled pair of french doors, whose glass it rattles for the third straight night.
These festivities are supposed to start at 5 pm and end by 10 pm. They usually start earlier, and inevitably end later. It's nearly 11:30 pm now and there's no hint of a conclusion.
I seem to recall reading in prior years that the Arsenale was supposed to become the site of all the marvelous Carnevale events of this sort--the favorite events of what in Manhattan are called the "Bridge and Tunnel" crowd. That is, the young people who come from the mainland to get really drunk and trash the historic city.
But now that we live around the Rialto I find that this is the area which the city's authorities in all their wisdom have designated the central party zone. Perhaps because the same city authorities have so successfully pursued policies that drive residents out of the city they figure no one lives here anyway? Or is this their plan to drive out the last of us remaining residents?
In any case, as you can see below in the third image from the bottom, revelers come to the Rialto area, enjoy some "traditional dishes of the Venetian Carnevale" (french fries and hot dogs), then drink nearly to bursting in the vicinity of the Grand Canal. At which point they treat all of the area's small quaint ancient calli as toilets. Indeed, the whole area is turned into an open air outhouse.
No calle is safe from the assault, not even the narrow ones leading to our apartment, which usually seem so easily overlooked and out-of-the-way as to be safe from the worst degradations of mass tourism. But not in this case. A steady, er, stream of drunks staggers into these calli. Our nine-year-old son, Sandro, one of whose bedroom windows has a slightly distant view of one such calle, is so outraged by the behavior that he's been yelling out the window in his strongest Venetian-accented Italian at the trespassers (or trespissers, as the case may be).
And, in fact, much to his approval, an older woman who lives on the calle he can see from his window has been forced to come outside her door armed with a water hose--both to try to wash away the urine (and, alas, not only urine) already on the pavement and walls and to threaten any newly-arriving revelers looking to empty their bladder and/or bowels.
Luckily, the courtyard of our own building is protected by a locked gate--which I had naively thought to be a completely superfluous precaution before tonight.
So, even as I post images of the more picturesque aspects of Carnevale, it seems important to insert a bit of the reality of it.** At least the reality of it for residents, for many of whom Carnevale is yet another form of invasion, in which the historical city is quite literally pissed on--after being metaphorically served thus by those city officials whose fondest wish for Venice seems to be to turn it into Fort Lauderdale, Florida during spring break. They've certainly succeeded tonight. Except that I think Fort Lauderdale at least tries to provide enough public restrooms for the partiers it courts. While Venice consistently treats both visitors and residents alike with contempt.
*There's an argument to be made that the well-being of the city depends on its officials figuring out how to get buying customers to the Rialto pescheria during the hours when it's open, instead of revelers to it after hours when it's closed. For as La Nuova di Venezia e Mestre reported at the end of September, the ongoing exodus of residents from the city and the dominance of a tourism monoculture has left the Rialto pescheria--"the heart of the city"--with an ever-diminishing customer base and resulted in a marked decrease in the number of fish stalls.
**The reality of living in Venice might also be of interest to those out-of-towners and foreigners whom city officials are quite content to have buy second and third homes here. A real estate agent I know who works for a large international agency here tells me that the home sales market is booming in Venice, with very nearly 100% of the purchases at their agency being made by foreigners, who are likely to use the property only sparingly themselves, and even more likely to use it as a tourist rental. At what point in the transmogrification of Venice into Fort Lauderdale do the property value of such second and third homes and tourist accomodations begin to be negatively affected? At what point in the transmogrification process do the high end properties start to go unsold? The assumption among city officials seems to be that they can abuse the historic center, the lagoon, visitors, residents, and property owners forever and suffer no ill economic effects.
|A big Carnevale crowd waits to buy "traditional Venetian dishes"|
|Fort Lauderdale? Cabo San Lucas? Venice? Carnevale? Halloween? New Year's Eve? Who can tell the difference?|
|"Don't touch the Rialto" says the banner--but it's okay to quite literally piss all over it|
Tuesday, February 21, 2017
|A costume's wig and hat takes it place among the city's monuments|
|The Marie of Carnevale brave the weather in an open boat|
|Though the fog makes it seem their destination must be otherworldly, they ended up heading down the Grand Canal|
|Spectacle upon spectacle: the costume competition on the main stage in Piazza San Marco|
|A group of costume competition contestants wait their turn upon the main stage|
|A contestant with one of the hosts of the festivities|
|Portrait in pink|
|A contingent from--as you might guess from their costumes--England|
|One of the inspired innovations of last year's Carnevale returns this year: artisans work at traditional Venetian crafts in workshop booths around the Piazza|
|Far from the crowd in the Piazza, a spritz brightens up a gloomy mid-day along the Grand Canal|